Changes to the way the Labour leader is elected were an essential factor in Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Meg Russell explains how the switch to a ‘one member one vote’ system was a fundamental change for the party – and for British politics – with last summer’s events raising profound questions about party democracy. This text is adapted from a response on the night to Steve Richards’ PSA Lecture on ‘Leadership, Loyalty And The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn’, on 15 October last year, and recently published in the Political Quarterly.
Steve Richards sets out convincingly some of the political and ideological currents that led to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. But his unexpected election was also an organisational phenomenon – touching on key issues of internal party democracy. Changes to the mechanism for electing the leader, agreed under Ed Miliband’s leadership, were essential to Corbyn’s victory. The result raises profound questions about who does, and who should, own a political party such as Labour.
The leadership contest of 2015, which delivered Corbyn’s victory, was the first in the Labour Party’s history to be based purely on the principle of one person one vote. The question of who should choose the leader has been a particularly hotly contested one through the party’s recent history, as in many other political parties. Looking back to the 1970s, there was no involvement at all by the party outside parliament in the choice of leader – it was entirely a decision for Labour MPs. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) chose its leader, who then led the party as a whole. This same principle applied in all three of the main parties.